What can I say about this, then? In their proper historical context, “Unto Us a Child is Born” and “Breeding Ground” aired about eight months apart. There’s ten episodes between them, which is significantly fewer than than separate them in our treatment. I bring this up because it probably means something that for folks watching “Breeding Ground” back in 1989, the related first season episode was still a comparatively fresh memory.
The episodes are basically nothing alike, which is undoubtedly the right way for a series to do the same basic brief in consecutive seasons, and it’s surprising only insofar as this is the one and only time the second season directly acknowledges a specific event from the first (Unless you count Blackwood instinctively recognizing the mind-altering effects of the music in “Terminal Rock” as a nod to “Choirs of Angels”, but I’d hardly call that “direct”).
While “Unto Us a Child is Born” is very straightforward creature horror, essentially, as I noted, a simplified version of It’s Alive, “Breeding Ground” is a far more psychological horror. There’s only one real shock-moment of gore, the explosion of the first implant subject. It’s fairly discrete too, the “money shot” obscured by a curtain a la Cloverfield. There’s nothing comparable to the repeated assaults and dismemberment done by the hybrid in the earlier episode. There’s not even a climactic battle in the second-season story: it’s one of those episodes where the heroes are mostly following the aliens at a distance for the whole episode and only show up after-the-fact.
But if you remember my coverage of “Breeding Ground”, you’ll know that I had some pretty serious misgivings about the structural decisions that story made. Specifically, the way that it seeks to make Gestaine a tragic character at the expense of erasing the actual victim, Kate. Or the perennial problem across both seasons of the regulars being only incidentally engaged in the plot. That’s not a problem in “Unto Us a Child is Born”: it’s one of the tightest episode of the season structurally, and does a very good job of integrating the heroes with the story. So I’m inclined to say that the second season had a more interesting concept, but the first season did a better job of realizing its concept. Which is pretty much this series in a nutshell.
The difference in plot-emphasis is best summarized by the baby itself: the baby in “Breeding Ground” is born at the end of the episode, and we don’t actually see it until the very last shot. In “Unto Us a Child is Born”, the birth of the hybrid happens at the start of act 2. We see it as a baby, then as a child, and finally in its mutant form. It’s actively engaged in the story, serving as the antagonist for the final act. The other aliens only engage the protagonists briefly, and are dispatched trivially. In “Breeding Ground”, Ardix and Bayda are the primary antagonists, and serve as a menacing presence throughout the episode.
There is also a big difference between the episodes in how much else is going on. “Unto Us a Child is Born” has the plot at the mall in its opening scene, but that vanishes immediately, and the episode is pretty much razor-focused on capturing the child and studying it. The whole of the episode is about the nature of the alien hybrid and very little else. “Breeding Ground” has a bunch of other stuff going on: Gestaine’s illness, and the larger matter of him being a victim of biological warfare testing. The collapse of the welfare state, healthcare costs and the moral dimension of for-profit medical insurance. The long-term survial of the Morthren species, for that matter: they deliberately set out to have a baby for the purpose of establishing that their species could reproduce on Earth; the Mortaxan hybrid is an accidental creation, and their interest in it is not about reproduction, but about vivisecting it to study its immune system.
And, of course, the Morthran hybrid’s story doesn’t end at the end of “Breeding Ground”: it’s one of very few episodes to have a direct sequel (Perhaps the only one. “No Direction Home” follows directly from “The Second Wave” but it’s arguable whether that’s really enough to make it count as a sequel per se. The series finale will also pick up on some events from “Loving the Alien”, but the plot is mostly unrelated). “The Pied Piper” revisits the infant we’d only briefly seen in “Breeding Ground”. Unlike the first episode, “The Pied Piper” is a story properly about the character of Adam. Who has rapid-aged from an infant to school-aged. And he kills a bunch of people who are doing medical work on him. In this regard, it’s a lot closer to “Unto Us a Child is Born”. Yet still, the second season episode feels the need to also have human antagonists by making the Creche staff and Martin in particular into vaguely sinister characters.
That’s one of the big, recurring shifts going into the second season: the addition of human antagonists. Other than mostly off-screen obstructionist bureaucrats, the closest the first season has come so far [Wait for it.] to a human antagonist would be Marcus Madison in “Feeding the Masses”, and he gets converted into an alien when the alien part of the plot really spins up.
“The Pied Piper” is also an interesting place to compare the seasons in light of the other connection I noted with respect to “Unto Us a Child is Born”. You’ll recall that I pointed out a superficial resemblance to the then-very-recently-released film The Fly II. The similarities are only skin-deep, though, on the level of what you’d expect if they’d pretty much just seen the trailer and decided to let it influence not the overall story, but maybe some of the visual motifs. There’s the basic idea of a chimeric baby rapidly aging and becoming monstrous, then at the end divesting itself of its foreign biomass to become fully human, but little of the actual meat of the story is duplicated. Through a weird coincidence, though, “The Pied Piper” seems to have picked up a lot of elements from the plot of The Fly II that “Unto Us a Child is Born” omits.
Like the film, “The Pied Piper” is set primarily in a sterile laboratory environment, and the related, um, alienation of the hybrid character from his humanity is a major theme of both works. There’s also the presence of something comparable to a “love interest” for Adam in the person of Julie. She serves a similar role to Daphne Zuniga’s character in The Fly II, helping Martin get in touch with his humanity as the first person to show him ordinary human affection, and being the major force that pulls him back from the abyss of giving in to his monstrosity — though obviously, the equivalent War of the Worlds character doesn’t succeed at this, in keeping with the series’s grimmer outlook.
Cronenberg’s The Fly is focused largely on the body horror of its main character as he is transformed. Seth Brundle is both the protagonist and the antagonist of the story. The sequel changes things up by having a distinct villain, Anton Bartok, a classic ’80s villainous businessman, looking to exploit teleportation-based-genetic-abomination-making for profit. If this plan doesn’t work out, his fall-back is to apply for a job with either Weyland-Yutani, the Umbrella Corporation, or that company from Time Shifters. He spends the movie manipulating Martin and eventually gets his comeuppance by being horribly mutated when Martin steals a bunch of his DNA to cure himself of creeping monsterism. Martin’s motives are ideological rather than profit-based, but he serves a similar role and is similarly obsessed with exploiting genetic manipulation. And though it’s handled more sloppily, his death — accidental self-defenestration while being induced to relive the death of his son — certainly has the feel of a comeuppance to it.
“The Pied Piper” is also more of a success than either of the other two episodes in giving a tragic aspect to the antagonist. “Breeding Ground” bends over backwards trying to make Gestaine sympathetic, playing down his own culpability to the point that it erases the victims of his actions. “The Pied Piper” does better: yes, we can sympathize with trauma at the root of Martin’s obsession, but he’s still a nasty piece of work — and the show even thematically (and maybe even a little unfairly) assigns him the entirety of the blame for his son’s death.
Adam isn’t really a character per se in “Breeding Ground”, but he too gets sympathetic traits in “The Pied Piper”. Which is frankly surprising, because he seems cast very obviously in the mold of Creepy Supernatural Child From a Horror Movie, a la The Midwich Cuckoos or… Like a million other Evil Child movies. But they go ahead and put in Adam’s connection with Julie, and even Suzanne attempting to reach out to him and pull him back toward humanity (It reminds me just a hair of the kinder, gentler version of “It’s a Good Life” from the Twilight Zone movie), then have the episode end of Adam wistfully reminiscing over human friendship. There’s an obvious attempt to make the mutant in “Unto Us a Child is Born” a bit tragic, but it goes no further than having it cry for its mother. There’s certainly never any sense of horror from it over its monstrous transformation, no equivalent scene to Adam crying in the weird Salvador Dali room over the existential question of whether or not he’s “bad”.
“Breeding Ground” got its sequel despite the fact that it doesn’t really end on a sequel hook per se. Its counterpart in the first season seems to have a distinct sequel hook but never gets any follow-up. A lack of follow-through is a big and recurring problem for both seasons, though the character of it is different: in the second season, I get a strong sense that they really did mean to follow up on lots of these elements, and failed to mostly due to beleaguered production, what with not having a consistent script editor or head writer, the shortening of the season, and substantial last-minute rewrites to bring the show to a formal conclusion. In the first season, it seems more like they just didn’t care — not that the writers were apathetic per se, but they were much more in the mindset of an ’80s adventure show where relying on the events of past episodes simply wasn’t done. And not without good reason: remember Harrison referring to things he doesn’t know yet back in “Among the Philistines”?
Both seasons of War of the Worlds are firmly in the sci-fi-horror genre, which of course is a little weird given that the movie which ostensibly inspired the series isn’t, really. But they’re both different implementations of the genre. While the first-season offering is a straightforward creature feature, the pair of second-season episodes concerning Adam are both much more cerebral. They’re both about the tragic downfall of a medical researcher who oversteps the limits of moral responsibility because of their personal demons. They both have this underlying horror theme of the Morthren subverting the process of creating the next generation of humans. There’s nothing really surprising in this: we’ve already mentioned that part of Mancuso’s remit was to tone down the show’s cheap, straightforward gore. But it is a bit ironic that it’s the Strangis family, known for their work on dramas and sitcoms, who went for the straightforward almost B-movie gore, while Mancuso, best known for his role in making basically the archetype of ’80s slasher films, got called in to make the show less gory. The timing of it demanded we look at the comparison between “Unto Us a Child is Born” and The Fly II, but if you look at these episodes and ask, “Which one was inspired by Cronenberg?” I doubt you’d point to the first season one.
But there’s one last point on which I want to compare these two episodes. I’ll admit its applicability is a little bit of a stretch. But still, it’s there. One of the minor elements that’s common to the two second-season episodes is the depiction of the government. In “Breeding Ground” we have this odd little backstory element of Gestaine having contracted his terminal illness while treating victims of biological warfare experiments. Experiments conducted by the government on its own citizens. Now, that’s so pointlessly evil, it’s almost utterly implausible to imagine anyone would believe that even a corrupt government would do something like that, unless you were familiar with the Tuskegee Experiments. Or MKUltra. Or the Edgewood Arsenal Experiments. I’m going to change the subject now. “The Pied Piper” has the Creche’s secret backers as government heavies, complete with guys in black coats who beat the shit out of you for asking too many questions.
It’s only a side-point in the second-season episodes: a bit of Gestaine’s backstory, and… possibly a clause in Adrian Paul’s contract requiring a minimum number of fist-fights or something. But it’s there, and we’ve talked at length before about it being reflective not of plot necessity, but of a desire for this show to firmly situate itself in a particular genre of paranoia — it wants to be the kind of show where the government is shady and not to be trusted.
The attitude toward the government in the first season is an even smaller point in “Unto Us a Child is Born”, but there’s still something there: Ironhorse, the special forces officer who keeps a photo of Reagan on his wall, waltzes into a hospital, declares that there’s an unspecified terrorist threat, and everyone instantly yields to his authority. Not only yields to his authority, but after he says the magic words, no one gives him any grief, and no one at the hospital even seems to care that the army has commandeered a floor and is patrolling it with Uzis.
That’s pretty stark. Unquestioning obedience to government authority as natural and proper in the first season, instinctive distrust and the assumption that the government is a threat in the second. That’s a little microcosm of the shift in the show’s style across the seasons. The first season is in the same vein as plenty of ’80s adventure shows: Knight Rider, MacGyver, Airwolf, all operated under the extended auspices of a sometimes misguided, but always presumed-benevolent government, and even where there was tension with the government, it was presented as a matter of bureaucratic interference that required a rebellious maverick, or else the result of individual bad actors. In the second season, the government is systemically corrupt, failing and outright malevolent. That greater malevolence is something we’ve closely associated in the past with the displacement of the old cold war tensions as it became clear that, if only accidentally, the foreign enemy we’d been taught to hate and fear for decades turned out to want a nuclear holocaust no more than we did.
And yet, there’s an oddity here. We are still, after all, talking about War of the Worlds. In the second season, it’s never really clear how much the government-at-large understands about the alien presence. There are places — the hyperdrive technology deal in “The Deadliest Disease”, say — where they seem to be in on it, but it’s kind of nonsensical. However, the general trend is to portray the government as largely disinterested in the alien invasion: perhaps they know that aliens walk the Earth, perhaps not, but so long as they’re not flying around in indestructible war machines armed with death rays, all the representatives of the government we meet are more concerned with exploiting the entirely terrestrial collapse of civilization to further their own personal agendas. The government’s evil is pernicious, but venial. What’s surprising by its absence is a government conspiracy.
This is where things get weird in juxtaposition. Because the government of the first season might be bureaucratic, inefficient, and difficult to work with, it might elicit scorn and chagrin from Harrison and Norton, but it’s not evil. It’s firmly on the side of the angels: their opening move is to give the heroes a blank check and the power to call in the army as needed.
But in the first season, there is a completely unambiguous government conspiracy going on. The government is conspiring to cover up evidence not only of the ongoing alien threat, but even of the 1953 invasion. Heck, “Eye for an Eye” tells us that they’ve been actively waging disinformation campaigns to cover up evidence of alien invasions since 1938.
More than that, even. In the first season, Ironhorse repeatedly uses the threat of terrorism in order to trick local civilian authorities into granting him special powers to pursue the federal government’s own secret agenda. That sure as heck reminds me of something.
But there’s never any point where we’re supposed to question that the government are the “good guys” in this — that, in fact, local civilian authorities who don’t instantly yield to Ironhorse’s claims of terrorist activity are the “bad government” obstructionist bureaucrats.
It’s as though each season latched onto one half of the incoming zeitgeist, but, being just a few years too early, couldn’t figure out a way to tie them together properly. So the first season gives us an honest-to-goodness government conspiracy with men in black (Well, plaid) and alien autopsies, but utterly neglects to make it at all sinister, while the second season hooks into a proto-90s sense of paranoia about our leaders conspiring against us, but never really puts anything behind that paranoia: their “evil government” seem to be Up To Something for no better reason than sheer nastiness. To what end? Whatever.